Government and private-sector researchers are working together at the National Bureau of Standards in Gaithersburg to make U.S. industry more competitive.
They want to find ways of using high-technology tools to improve the quality of U.S.-manufactured goods, and the mission of the NBS makes the bureau a natural part of such an effort: to develop the standards and methods of measure essential for scientific research and industry, according to Peter L. M. Heydemann, NBS associate director.
One arena in which the push for increased competitiveness is being pursued is a 24-foot-high lab in one of the 26 buildings of the NBS complex. There, a driverless cart that looks like a giant battery-powered toy rolls along the concrete floor, delivering smooth metal blocks and rods to an assortment of metal-forming machines equipped with robot arms.
The arms move with a precision surprising for such large mechanisms. They grasp the metal pieces, then slide, twist and turn them into position where the machines' cutters and drills swiftly reshape them. In moments, the blocks become filter housings with holes and multilevel channels, and the rods become valve stems with different diameters machined along their length. And when a machine needs another cutting or clamping implement, the robot arm glides over and makes the exchange.
All of this activity is controlled from nearby computer consoles. It's part of the National Bureau of Standards' automated-manufacturing research facility, where scientists and technicians are studying how to make different companies' standard automated metals-manufacturing equipment compatible and how to build measuring into the manufacturing process.
More than 100 companies have been involved in the project, including many members of the computer industry and General Motors Corp., which hopes to use the results in its Saturn project for building subcompact cars that can compete with imports.
"For the past three or four years, industry has recognized that competitive position in the marketplace depends on quality as well as price," Heydemann said during a recent interview. The United States learned to make standardized goods in large quantities. Now it must learn how to manufacture high-value-added goods in small batches, he asserted.
He stressed that most goods are manufactured in small batches by small companies rather than in large batches by large companies. These smaller manufacturers cannot afford to replace all of their equipment at once, even if one supplier made compatible models of all of the equipment that the manufacturer needed, which isn't the case. This makes it crucial to develop standards so that automated machinery made by different companies can work together and be controlled by one computer system, he said.
According to Heydemann, about half the time needed to produce a precision part is taken up making periodic measurements to determine if the part matches specifications or if further machining is necessary. If measurements could be taken automatically as the part was being machined by computer-controlled equipment, the process would take less time and fewer parts would have to be scrapped as unacceptable, he said.
Some surveys have shown that one-third of this country's manufacturing work force is engaged in correcting mistakes made by the other two-thirds, he added.
The goal of improved measurement techniques is to permit small production runs and rapid changes with no defects. Not only could such techniques improve America's capabilities in manufacturing high-tech goods such as microprocessors, but they also could revive mature industries such as autos and steel, Heydemann said. He noted that these industries, rather than high-tech-related endeavors, "still provide the bulk" of the U.S. gross national product.
The facility project began in October 1980, and has yielded some innovations. For example, the control system in a workstation for vertical machining has what NBS believes is the unique capability of taking a standard data file description of a part and automatically programming the machinery to produce the part. Another workstation's machining accuracy has been improved by between five and 10 times through new software.
The Automated Research Facility is not the only area in which NBS and industry personnel work together. Under the Industrial Research Associate Program, companies' scientists and engineers work with NBS personnel on research of mutual interest, typically for one year, but sometimes for periods as short as a few months and in one case, for almost 60 years. The companies continue to pay their workers' salaries during this period.
NBS is working with state economic-development organizations set up to help small enterprises, trying to let them know what services NBS can provide, Heydemann said. Small businesses often fail when they try to enlarge their operations, but NBS can provide the knowledge necessary to help them with this transition directly or through state organizations, he said, adding that the bureau also can point industry to other sources of information among government agencies.
NBS also runs a guest worker program under which people from academic institutions and other research institutions -- some of whom NBS helps to fund -- work at NBS on fundamental research.
Heydemann pointed out that, when companies use NBS research facilities, they pay the operating costs for the time used. Access to specialized NBS facilities, such as a neutron-source nuclear reactor used to study the crystalline structure of metal alloys, was initiated in May 1984 at industry's request. Firms obtain this access only when NBS doesn't need the particular equipment, and this constitutes less than 10 percent of the available time.
Industry donates or lends equipment to NBS -- an estimated worth of between $40 million and $50 million in equipment and staff time last year alone.
An important part of the bureau's operations is the production and sale to industry of what are called reference materials. These items are certified to be pure in content or accurate in measure. The most unusual reference material offered consists of tiny polystyrene spheres made in space aboard the space shuttle that are more uniform than can be produced on earth. The spheres are used in calibrating microscopes and other medical instruments. A less exotic, but more popular, reference material sold by NBS is blood serum used to calibrate automatic blood analyzers. NBS sold about $4 million worth of 1,000 different materials in fiscal 1984 in about 40,000 separate transactions.